Eine Kleine GeneMusiK

GeneMusiK rides Again!

The GeneMusiK project had its origins in 2003 during a three month Artist in Residence hosted by the SymbioticA lab at the University of Western Australia.  At that time I worked in the Department of Agricultural Sciences with Dr Gary Cass on the conceptual and biological framework of a system that would allow music to be encoded into DNA sequences. This genetic material would subsequently be re-mixed within the plasmid DNA of bacteria and eventually be re-sequenced as altered DNA sequences that would represent equally altered musical notation.

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Doctors Albertyn and Helyer making bug music

The intricacies of micro-biology aside, these early experiments promised interesting results but ultimately the project ran out of time and money and was put on ice - quite literally at minus eighty degrees Celcius!

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A fistfull of Dollars-Microbiology is an expensive hobby! An image from the original GeneMusiK research

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Mindmap workflow for GeneMusiK

However during the subsequent years often thought to pick up the traces again, as the concept of drawing together the mnemonic structures of DNA, musical notation and other cultural memes was intriguing.

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Test file DNA map

In 2013 I was invited to develop the GeneMusiK project for a second Artist in Residence at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, with a view to experimenting with the process and establishing working relationships within the University and within the wider community.

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Jafta the San community secretary and Master Jashaela

The long term aim being to produce a performative work for the Vryfees festival in the following year 2015.

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The young Master turns an ear to the proceedings

The current experimentation with GeneMusiK ~ takes a fresh look at the original proof of concept project developed in 2003.

Field recording of Master Jashaela

The metaphors of Genes, Memes and Dots as mnemonic structures capable of evolution and embodiment prompt GeneMusiK to create a re-mix of cultural, social and biological pathways, by hybridising local african music with the epitome of the western musical tradition (the string Quartet) via the transformations of musical and genetic codes within Bacterial cultures.

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Platfontein - arid is not the word!

The project operates between the MicroBiology Labs and the Odeion School of Music and with an outreach to the musical culture of the San community who live in a re-settlement camp some two hour drive to the west, near Kimberly in the Northern Cape.

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Platfontein resettlement San community

The residency has allowed me to ‘road-test’ the various components that together form the complex chain of transformations that take audio field recordings (in this case of San musicians) via musical notation, into DNA and then into Bacterial to be extracted and ultimately rendered as scores for musical performance.

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Master playing his new keyboard

Due to the relatively short duration of the AIR (six weeks) I have chosen to run the various stages of the overall process in parallel, developing methodologies and forming working relationships simultaneously.

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Pitch analysis using Sonic Visualiser

For the first full cycle I selected a unique early transcription of San music discovered in an explorers publication from 1810.

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1810 illustration of a San bushman playing the mouth bow

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Transcription from the Burchell illustration, this can be seen as a motif in the full test score below.

W.J. Burchell was a polymath, scientist, botanist, musician and intrepid traveller and it was in his Travels into Southern Africa that I came upon an illustration of a seated San bushman playing a mouth bow, accompanied by a musical transcription (Burchell played the violin). See a three page extract from his book at the end of this page, describing the bushman musician and instrument.

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Restriction enzyme sites on the San Gorah DNA sequence

Using this simple score as a source a DNA sequence was generated and the action of restriction enzymes used to fragment the DNA code.  The re-assembled fragments generate a different sequence and this was used to create a parallel musical score.

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The first two pages of the DNA score hybridised with the 1810 transcription

In the final stage the two scores are merged into a composition and given to the Odeion String Quartet to play.  The initial result, a complex and challenging work, certainly not easy listening!

First play through of a difficult DNA score!

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Members of the Odeion String Quartet rehearse a test score

Appendix.

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Text from Burchell.

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